The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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  • Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson , et al (rated 5/5)

Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Speculative, Alt. History

by Jhumpa Lahiri

Hardcover (27 Apr 2021), 176 pages.
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN-13: 9780593318317

A marvelous new novel from the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Lowland and Interpreter of Maladies--her first in nearly a decade.

Exuberance and dread, attachment and estrangement: in this novel, Jhumpa Lahiri stretches her themes to the limit. The woman at the center wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and the refusal to form lasting ties. The city she calls home, an engaging backdrop to her days, acts as a confidant: the sidewalks around her house, parks, bridges, piazzas, streets, stores, coffee bars. We follow her to the pool she frequents and to the train station that sometimes leads her to her mother, mired in a desperate solitude after her father's untimely death. In addition to colleagues at work, where she never quite feels at ease, she has girl friends, guy friends, and "him," a shadow who both consoles and unsettles her. But in the arc of a year, as one season gives way to the next, transformation awaits. One day at the sea, both overwhelmed and replenished by the sun's vital heat, her perspective will change.

This is the first novel she has written in Italian and translated into English. It brims with the impulse to cross barriers. By grafting herself onto a new literary language, Lahiri has pushed herself to a new level of artistic achievement.

On the Sidewalk

In the mornings after breakfast I walk past a small marble plaque propped against the high wall flanking the road. I never knew the man who died. But over the years I've come to know his name, his surname. I know the month and day he was born and the month and day his life ended. This was a man who died two days after his birthday, in February.

It must have been an accident on his bike or his motorcycle. Or maybe he was walking at night, distracted. Maybe he was hit by a passing car.

He was forty-­four when it happened. I suppose he died in this very spot, on the sidewalk, next to the wall that sprouts neglected plants, which is why the plaque has been arranged at the bottom, at the feet of passersby. The road is full of curves and snakes uphill. It's a bit dangerous. The sidewalk is vexing, crowded with exposed tree roots. Some sections are nearly impossible to negotiate because of the roots. That's why I, too, tend to walk on the road.

There's usually a candle burning in a container of red glass, along with a small bunch of flowers and the statue of a saint. There's no photograph of him. Above the candle, attached to the wall, there's a note from his mother, written by hand, encased in a milky plastic sleeve. It greets those who stop for a moment to ponder the death of her son. I would like to personally thank those who dedicate a few minutes of their time to my son's memory, but if that's not possible, I thank you anyway, from the bottom of my heart, it says.

I've never seen the mother or any other person in front of the plaque. Thinking of the mother just as much as the son, I keep walking, feeling slightly less alive.

On the Street

Now and then on the streets of my neighborhood I bump into a man I might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with. He always looks happy to see me. He lives with a friend of mine, and they have two children. Our relationship never goes beyond a longish chat on the sidewalk, a quick coffee together, perhaps a brief stroll in the same direction. He talks excitedly about his projects, he gesticulates, and now and then as we're walking our synchronized bodies, already quite close, discreetly overlap.

One time he accompanied me into a lingerie shop because I had to choose a pair of tights to wear under a new skirt. I'd just bought the skirt and I needed the tights for that same evening. Our fingers grazed the textures splayed out on the counter as we sorted through the various colors. The binder of samples was like a book full of flimsy transparent pages. He was totally calm among the bras, the nightgowns, as if he were in a hardware store and not surrounded by intimate apparel. I was torn between the green and the purple. He was the one who convinced me to choose the purple, and the saleslady, putting the tights into the bag, said: Your husband's got a great eye.

Pleasant encounters like this break up our daily meanderings. We have a chaste, fleeting bond. As a result it can't advance, it can't take the upper hand. He's a good man, he loves my friend and their children.

I'm content with a firm embrace even though I don't share my life with anyone. Two kisses on the cheeks, a short walk along a stretch of road. Without saying a word to each other we know that, if we chose to, we could venture into something reckless, also pointless.

This morning he's distracted. He doesn't recognize me until I'm right in front of him. He's crossing a bridge at one end and I'm arriving from the other. We stop in the middle and look at the wall that flanks the river, and the shadows of pedestrians cast on its surface. They look like skittish ghosts advancing in a row, obedient souls passing from one realm to another. The bridge is flat and yet it looks as if the figures—­vaporous shapes against the solid wall—­are walking uphill, always climbing. They're like inmates who proceed, silently, toward a dreadful end.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri. Copyright © 2021 by Jhumpa Lahiri. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

A spare, contemplative work of fiction about the limitations of existence.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Jhumpa Lahiri's Whereabouts has seen numerous comparisons to Second Place by Rachel Cusk. These two short novels, with American release dates a week apart, are both narrated from the point of view of an unnamed middle-aged woman reflecting on her life circumstances. But while Cusk's story is a fraught, frenzied work about a character bemoaning her lack of freedom, Lahiri's book is lower-key in presentation: It follows a melancholic professor living in a (presumably Italian) city, a solitary person looking in on the lives of others, wandering on the fringes of family and relationships.

As the title suggests, a sense of place is a major theme; Whereabouts unfolds in vignette-style chapters labeled by where they occur — ranging from the straightforward "On the Street" and "At the Trattoria" to the more conceptual "In My Head" and "In August." Each chapter appears as a closed system in which the narrator's emotions and inclinations seem to be controlled by the physical and conceptual properties of her situation. In one, she recollects an affair with a married man, remarking, "It was an incendiary time, a momentary surge that has nothing to do with me anymore." In another, she attends a dinner where she is drawn into discussion with another guest about a film but becomes irritated when the woman doesn't share her opinion, snapping, "Do you realize you have no idea what the fuck you're talking about?" In a different chapter, the potential calm of a country getaway is ruined when she makes an insignificant but stomach-turning discovery.

While the narrator often comes across as irritable and morose, her intense accounts are captivating. The novel's vignettes remind me of the autobiographical work of Soviet writer Mikhail Zoshchenko, who created vivid, snapshot-style depictions of his experiences in an attempt to understand the source of his unhappiness. Like Zoshchenko as narrator, Lahiri's protagonist is a moody storyteller, but it is the bitterness of her emotions that shocks her surroundings to life, and even her more anxious and disturbing thoughts contain a certain strange beauty. The overall effect can be summed up in one of the narrator's own musings as she strolls along a beach to the remains of an abandoned villa, among which several children are playing: "Outside, there's a ferocious noise coming from the crashing of the waves and the roar of the wind: a perpetual agitation, a thundering boom that devours everything. I wonder why we find it so reassuring."

The book's use of physical limitation as a device aligns with how it was written: Lahiri composed it in Italian, an acquired language for her, and later translated it into English. Likely as a result of this, the novel's language is sparse, which makes it feel timeless and lacking in specific location even as time and place in general play such a significant part. Buried in this sparseness is a deceptively alive story that builds in momentum even as it offers little in the way of actual plot.

While the narrator frequently seems like more of an oddity than an everywoman, her story is populated with small and large burdens of daily existence that will to an extent be familiar to any reader. Whereabouts reminds us that there is no escape from the confines and consequences of physical place and time, but its portrayal of these elements is cathartic, stimulating and satisfying.

Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

Washington Post
Depression is a perfectly legitimate subject for fiction, of course, and God knows it’s an exigent aspect of modern life. But the insular nature of the condition makes it extraordinarily difficult to render in an emotionally compelling way. The late, great Anita Brookner managed to pull off that feat to haunting effect, but in Whereabouts, descriptions of chilled despair have been so aggressively honed that there’s little for us to hang on to but the sighs.

The Atlantic
Whereabouts is rendered in short, journal-like fragments so strongly and rightly voiced that other books sound wrong when you turn to them.

Los Angeles Times
Whereabouts signals a new mode for Lahiri, and a daring transformation . . . It feels true and wise to the core.

USA Today
Poetic as she is and always has been, seemingly innocuous turns of phrase cut to the core, while descriptions of light and darkness take you aback and make you swoon. Elegantly observed and often beautifully sad.

New York Times
The most exciting moments of Whereabouts are when it becomes a novel of thinking, when it dives down into its sharp fragments...Lahiri’s commitment — to write fiction in Italian, while also, in this novel, paring language down to a minimalist power — begins to create a generalized syntax, disconcertingly simplified...It’s not that the descriptions are clumsy; rather, language glides along the surface of things. The polished words sometimes seem to lose contact with living existence.

Kirkus Reviews
[The novel's] spare, reflective prose and profound interiority recall the work of Rachel Cusk and Sigrid Nunez as much as Lahiri's earlier fiction...Elegant, subtle, and sad.

Painterly…exquisitely detailed…[Lahiri's] language seems to have been sieved through a fine mesh, each word a gleaming gemstone...An incisive and captivating evocation of the nature and nexus of place and self.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[A] meditative and aching snapshot of a life in suspension...Lahiri's poetic flourishes and spare, conversational prose are on full display. This beautifully written portrait...captures the hopes, frustrations, and longings of solitude and remembrance.

Library Journal (starred review)
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Lahiri brilliantly elevates the quotidian to the sublime in this gorgeous stream-of-consciousness window into the interior life of an accomplished woman. Written in Italian and translated by Lahiri herself; with special appeal to readers of Rachel Cusk's Outline trilogy.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Margot P
Slices of life
While Whereabouts is a novel in the technical sense, it’s really just slices of life in a year of a floundering 40ish Italian woman in an unnamed city. The writing is gorgeous, especially considering it was translated from Italian to English by Lahiri. The intimate portrayal of the protagonist is very similar to those of Ferrante’s characters in her last two novels: solitary, capable women who are unable to make lasting human connections largely in part as results from damages inflicted upon them by their parents. I especially enjoyed the chapter where she visits her mother and the final one on the train where her life is symbolically contrasted with those of a group of happy foreign travelers.

Print Article Publisher's View  

Exophonic Authors

Jhumpa Lahiri wrote her novel Whereabouts in Italian, a language she learned in adulthood, and later translated it into English. Many authors have at some time made the decision to become exophonic (to write in a language other than one's native tongue), whether for personal, artistic, practical or political reasons.

The author who is possibly best known for doing this is Irish writer Samuel Beckett, who famously adopted French in order to write "sans style" (without style). While he eventually returned to English, some of his most famous works were originally composed in French, including the play En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot) and the trilogy of novels beginning with Molloy.

Hungarian writer Ágota Kristóf's short novel Le Grand Cahier (The Notebook) is sometimes recommended as an easy read for French learners, as Kristóf wrote it while still attempting to master the language herself after having fled her native country for Switzerland. Mieke Chew contrasts Kristóf with Beckett as a French language learner turned writer, remarking, "Unlike Beckett, who kept language itself at arm's length for the sake of form, she did not experiment with French out of artistic ambition, but in order to live and be understood, not playfully, but with rigor and dedication to correctness—and she did so to devastating effect."

Another exiled writer, Vladimir Nabokov, is best known for the work he produced in English after moving to the United States, including Lolita and Pale Fire. His earlier novels were written in his native Russian, and he once noted, "My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom, my rich, infinitely rich and docile Russian tongue, for a second-rate brand of English."

Exophonic Book Covers

Edwidge Danticat, Haitian American author of Breath, Eyes, Memory, Everything Inside and other works, is a contemporary exophonic writer. Though Danticat grew up with Haitian Creole as her primary language and was taught in French at school as a child, she began to compose stories in English soon after coming to the US at a young age. In an interview, Danticat explained, "I came to English at a time when I was not adept enough at French to write creatively in French and did not know how to write in Creole because it had not been taught to me in school, so my writing in English was as much an act of personal translation as it was an act of creative collaboration with the new place I was in."

In her 2017 essay "To Speak Is to Blunder," Yiyun Li — author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl; Where Reasons End; and other novels and story collections — recounts how for her the act of choosing to write in English, along with the rejection of her mother tongue, Chinese, has come with harsh and complicated implications but feels necessary. Reflecting on Nabokov's comment about giving up writing in Russian, she forms her own sentiment around his words: "If I allow myself to be honest, my private salvation, which cannot and should not be anybody's concern, is that I disowned my native language."

Lahiri's 2015 essay "Teach Yourself Italian" (itself translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein), on her journey to writing in the language, introduces some interesting parallels and contrasts to Li's experience. Lahiri's relationship to language is informed by her parents' Bengali, in which she has always lacked some degree of fluency despite it being her mother tongue, as well as English, in which she initially wrote fiction. Regarding her fledgling attempts to write in Italian, she states, "I think I am escaping both my failures with regard to English and my success. ... I'm bound to fail when I write in Italian, but, unlike my sense of failure in the past, this doesn't torment or grieve me."

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By Elisabeth Cook

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